Monday, June 09, 2014

The Things Themselves

I'm not here invoking Kant's Ding an sich but Husserl's Sachen selbst. Or at least that's what I think I mean. (I'll let more serious phenomenologists correct me on this.) It seems to me that in the social sciences, obsessed as we are with questions of theory and method (and, more often, the politics of the university), we sometimes forget what is right under our noses, the primary experience from which we derive our insights about society. I'm not here talking about the nature of our data, which comes in so many different forms. The data is supposed to give us access to our object. But this object must be "given" to us in experience; the data must be derived from our encounter with "the things themselves". Where are the things of social life? Where do they appear in their original, unspoiled form? What is their natural habitat?

Where, in ordinary life, in short, do we encounter "society"? What is the experience that sociology improves our understanding of? And is it, importantly, different from the experience that poets and novelists and television writers deal with? Does sociology tell us about the same "social life", or is it interested in something altogether different? Surely, sociologists are not driven primarily by curiosity about how people will answer a survey questionnaire or what they will say in an interview or what they have reported in the latest census. They are curious about this, to be sure, but it's a secondary kind of curiosity, derived from the first. Their first interest is in people. This they share with other writers. But are they looking at the same thing? Are they facing in the same direction?

I sometimes doubt that sociologists (or at least particular sociologists) reach an understanding of anything but the artifacts they have themselves produced as data. Like Richard Biernacki, I'm suspicious of the ritual invocation of the methods that turn "meanings" into "facts". And it is within that suspicion that I find the answer to my question. Society is made of meaning; it is the Sache selbst, the matter at hand. It is available to us to in experience, somewhere "behind" which we assume there are people "an sich", just as we try to imagine—what cannot be imagined—the Ding.


Anonymous said...

Didn't Margaret Thatcher aver that "there is no such thing as society"? In any case, there is no reason to expect that sociology will offer much help in understanding society in an ontological sense. What members of that profession call pluralism is a polite shorthand for a number of warring tribes that tragically defend their current theoretical claims against the others. There is no ancestor worship and tribal fashion changes frequently. Alas.

Thomas said...

Unfortunately, there are probably some sociologists who think that Thatcher's remark is good evidence for the existence of their object. (There are some critics of sociology, of course, who just as unfortunately think she should be taken as an authority on the matter.) I do agree with you that many sociologists lose sight of their object (society) in their struggles over theory, some on the (not completely mistaken) assumption that social theory is an important part of the sociological object. I'm intrigued by the idea that more ancestor worship would improve the situation.

Anonymous said...

The comment about ancestor worship reflects my unease with the glib dismissal of scholars and scholarship "from the past". Social theory courses make room for cultural sociology because it is all the rage. All that remains of Marx, Simmel, Merton, and others is lip service.

Presskorn said...

I know why you prefer to phrase your worry as being about "meanings" turned into "facts": it refelcts your ontological prejudice that are no social facts to begin with.

But I wonder if the problem is not really one of "facts" being into "meanings" (rather than vice versa). A good example of such "methods" (I wonder if they deserve that name) is the interpretation of election polls, which are often interpreted along the lines of, say, "the electorate giving a warning to the president" etc. - which is, of course, complete nonsense; the individual voters are not giving anything to anyone, they are just indicating how they would vote. Here a "meaining" is being illegitimately attached to quite ordinary social facts, namely to preferences of voting

(And yes, I also would admit of much more abstract and elusive social facts, such as the "normative facts", that, say, Durkheim and Foucault was ultimately concerned with).

Thomas said...

@Anon: I largely agree with that. T.S. Eliot wrote: ' Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.'

Ezra Pound: "The study of literature is hero-worship."


@Presskorn: I would say that polling turns public opinion, which is originally a body of meaning, into a fact that has nothing to with what the public meant when answering the poll (and certainly nothing to do with what the public thinks about the issues.)